Atomic Deserts A Survey of the World's Radioactive No-Go Zones

The Soviet nuclear testing site in present-day Kazakhstan is just one of many places in the world that remain dangerously radioactive to this day.

The Soviet nuclear testing site in present-day Kazakhstan is just one of many places in the world that remain dangerously radioactive to this day.

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Part 20: The Unknown Catastrophe


DPA

One of the worst nuclear accidents took place on Sep. 29, 1957, but was only made public years later. On that day, a tank containing 80 tons of highly-radioactive liquid waste exploded at the Mayak plutonium plant in the southern Urals, 15 kilometers east of the Russian city of Kyshtym. The blast produced a radioactive cloud that was about 300 kilometers long and 40 kilometers wide, and which traveled northeast. The radiation did not reach Europe, but was at the same level of that released during the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. About 15,000 people who lived in the area were evacuated, and the houses located in a 25-kilometer zone surrounding the location were destroyed. No one was allowed to go back. The plutonium production at the plant, which also delivered the material for the Soviet Union's first atomic bomb, was not discontinued.

It wasn't until the 1970s that information about the catastrophe leaked to the West. The Soviet regime first admitted it in 1989. The number of deaths and details of the long-term effects remain unknown. The 150-square-kilometer area over which the radioactive cloud dispersed remains closed off to this day and entry is forbidden.

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